I had the privilege of attending one of the session days of Justice Desk Africa’s Mbokodo Project, an initiative that educates and empowers girls from underserved communities around Cape Town, and it made me realise the importance of female-only spaces for not only protecting women from danger, but allowing them to develop as individuals. Most of us are familiar with the shocking statistics about the rate of violence towards women in South Africa. With figures showing that the country has one of the highest numbers of reported rape cases annually, and one in five women reporting experiencing physical violence, it is clear that South Africa is a dangerous place to be a woman. However, before my experience with the Mbokodo girls I didn’t truly understand the extent to which women were under threat.
Despite all the challenges that surround our Mbokodo girls, from the moment they arrived at the Christian Brother’s Centre the atmosphere was joyous. Coming from communities like Bonteheuwel, Khayelitsha and Nyanga (a township often considered the murder capital of South Africa), the session was an opportunity for the girls to reunite with friends they had made through the project and this, combined with the school-holiday enthusiasm, meant the centre was alive with chatter. It dawned on me that the buzz in the air was caused by more than simply the excitement of the day: within the serene landscape of the Stellenbosch mountains, there was an undeniable feeling of safety. In a setting as peaceful as this, it was at times difficult to remember the bleak realities of life in South Africa for our Mbokodo girls. The sad truth is that the day felt so poignant because for many South African women and girls these spaces are so rare. The positive environment of the session was a stark contrast to the widespread injustices that the girls face every day.
The Mbokodo heroes were all too aware of the situation that they lived in: chants of “Men, you better watch out!” in the session’s opening song reinforced our purpose - to provide these girls with both an escape from the problems of South African society, and the tools to deal with them. The session, led by the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation, focused on sexual orientation and gender identity, an important topic that is often a taboo subject within the country. In the afternoon, a transgender woman called Xola led a discussion about the realities of being gender non-conforming in South Africa. I was struck by how engaged the girls were throughout the talk: for many, this may have been the first time they interacted with someone who doesn’t present themselves as gender-conforming, and so the afternoon was filled with questions. I saw first-hand the importance of LGBTQIA+ representation in allowing our heroes to gain a deeper understanding of their peers, and maybe themselves. Within the safety of the session, they could ask questions that they may be too afraid to ask elsewhere.
Before I attended the Mbokodo session, I didn’t fully understand the importance of having women-only spaces where the girls could express themselves and their curiosity without judgement. As a woman living in South Africa, I considered ‘safety’ as going places in groups, avoiding unlit streets and walking with my keys between my fingers. Countless news articles and guidelines had warned me about the physical danger I would be in because of my gender, so I felt prepared to face the challenges that South Africa presents women, as unfair as they may be. However, I hadn’t considered the broader issues of the toxic masculinity culture within the country, in which women’s voices and concerns were continually ignored, criticised or deemed unimportant.
The Mbokodo session served as a safe space not just from the threat of physical harm for the girls, but also as a space to listen to and support the multitude of questions and concerns raised throughout the day. It taught me that women’s safety isn’t just valued by statistics about gender-based violence and protection from physical harm, but also in the extent to which we are nurturing the self-worth and confidence of women. By being built on a foundation of respect, the Mbokodo Project is able to protect the mental, physical and emotional safety of the young women. My ignorance of the necessity of these environments goes to show that the emotional safety of women, particularly of those who come from underserved communities, has long been undervalued. South Africa requires female safe spaces in order to not only protect women from physical harm, but provide them with emotional support and education that allows them to thrive.
Written by Caroline Hibbert